Gov. Mills signs bill supporting an Aroostook drug court

1 month ago

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday signed into law an act that supports creating drug treatment courts throughout Maine, especially in rural parts of the state that have been hard hit by the opioid epidemic. 

For people in Aroostook, the only Maine judicial jurisdiction without a treatment and recovery court, the closest option is in Calais, more than 130 miles away from The County’s population center.

“With the passage of this bill, Aroostook County is the closest it has ever been to establishing a treatment and recovery court. This would be transformational to families and communities across the region,” said Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

Jackson originally introduced LD 1596 last legislative session with the goals of spurring the conversation about developing an Aroostook drug court and approving funds for a part-time assistant district attorney dedicated to it. 

But it has evolved since last year. The amended version makes it clear in statute that the Legislature wants these courts to be available throughout the state, but it does not include funding.

Maine Treatment and Recovery Courts, previously called drug courts, are specialty dockets for eligible people whose involvement with the criminal justice system has been fueled by a serious substance use disorder. 

Most people with substance use disorder who commit crimes in Aroostook County must recover behind bars. Access in The County to a treatment and recovery court could break the cycle for some, according to experts. 

The 2023 Maine Specialty Docket Report said that intensive judicial intervention, individual accountability, treatment and support, have changed lives. 

There are already treatment and recovery courts in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Hancock, Penobscot, Washington and York counties.

Last year, members of the Aroostook County recovery community contacted Jackson about The County’s extreme need. As a result of those discussions, he introduced LD 1596, to get the conversation about Aroostook County going on the state level.

It was put on hold when officials realized the complexity of starting a court in The County. 

“Other agencies started saying ‘that‘s not all you need. You need service providers, two new counselors in the area dedicated to the program and it turns out you need case managers and then you need dedicated attorneys,” Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins said. “The conversation started identifying stakeholders and necessary resources to get a handle on how it might theoretically work in a county the size of Connecticut.”

A development committee was established and members include Collins, probation officers, representatives from law enforcement and the district attorney’s office, treatment providers, pretrial services, plus agencies from the governor’s office to behavioral services.

Together, they created a plan before applying to establish a court in The County.

In January, the Maine Legislative Judiciary Committee voted in support of the amended version of the bill and Collins filed the application with the state supreme court on Feb. 20.

“They are going to make their analysis and let us know whether we have permission to ramp one up,” Collins said.

The application is first reviewed by administrative staff and then it is sent to the court administrator and chief justices for review and authorization, said Todd Crawford, coordinator of specialty dockets.

Collins said they still need to secure funding for the court, which is labor intensive. 

Yet they can save thousands per successful participant, according to the 2023 Maine Specialty Docket Report.

The average annual cost for case management, treatment, and judicial time is $8,488. Based on a participation length of 15.5 months, the average overall cost per participant is $10,964. This compares to $51,465 per year in jail or $44,895 in state prison, the report said.

Collins said the Legislature has made it clear in the new law that it intends for these courts to be available in all parts of the state, and if funding is necessary, they need to make it happen, he said.  

“The idea is, you guys have passed this law that says we want to increase accessibility into rural communities. Aroostook County is pretty rural. We’ve got a plan and we need the funding,” he said.

Collins said he does not have a timeline for the court’s decision on their application. And the specialty docket administrator could not be reached for comment.